A to-do list that works: 3 steps to doing what you want today

As creative people, we sometimes find it challenging to organise our lives - let alone make time to create. The to-do list is one of the simplest, most powerful organisational tools invented. If you struggle to make a to-do list work for you, here is a process that will help.

A to-do list is like an external brain. You take less than ten minutes a day to make decisions about what to put on it. Then when you spring into action, you save the huge energy it takes to make decisions, and put that towards doing stuff. And the list does the remembering for you…genius!

Sick of missing out?

I am naturally chaotic and forgetful. My brain likes to pick something interesting to be fascinated by, and forget the rest. Other people’s to-do lists always filled me with a mix of curiosity and envy. I could never consistently use one - first I’d forget to check it, then I’d lose it.

One day I got an email from a young composer who wanted to write music to go with one of my poems. I was excited, and a bit overwhelmed. I couldn’t work out what to write back, so I thought I’d wait a day or two to reply.

A year and a half later, I woke up in the middle of the night, wondering if I’d ever answered the email. I hadn’t. I wrote back straight away, and we ended up collaborating on a fun piece together. This was one of the lucky times - often my forgetfulness led to situations that couldn’t be so easily fixed.

This seems a common pattern in many creative people. It’s even part of our stereotype - dreamy, disorganised. But I couldn’t stand to keep missing out on things. I grew determined to find ways to keep track of the tasks I wanted to do.

I have good news! The ability to use a to-do list isn’t limited to any personality type. I swear, you too can become more organised. And if you’ve struggled with this all your life, as I did, I think you’re going to love it.

Before you start: Make your Mega-list

All sorts of things you mean to do are probably flickering around in your head, only appearing at times that it doesn’t suit you to do them. So, the first thing we want to do is to collect these in one place. Big, small, all welcome! Add to this list when you remember stuff that you believe needs to be done. This way you don’t lose them.

Try different ways to record your Mega-list. This is your unique life and your systems need to work for you. I kept believing I could use Wunderlist like other people, but once I put my tasks in, looking at the huge list only made me want to cry. Paper, for some reason, is best for me. Try stuff - and keep what works.

If you want, write out all the steps involved in your tasks. Seeing the steps laid out can really help you to start moving forward on things that you’ve been meaning to do for ages.

You may or may not want to consult your Mega-list when you’re writing your daily to-do list. I don’t; I look at mine maybe once a month. But having it is a huge relief. I can tell my fretting mind that the tasks are all safely in one place. This lets me relax and focus on whatever I decide is most important right now.

Now you’re ready to get started!

Step 1: Write your list

The key to this system is to have the ambition to write a list every day. This is especially important for people who have things to remember on a daily basis (for example if you’re parenting, doing a project, pitching or selling work, or wanting to get your creativity to a new level). It takes time to get used to this, and you’ll probably forget sometimes. That’s okay - start again tomorrow.

Aim to write your list at the same time every day - either in the morning or the night before. Link writing your list with something you always do (I have a self-care routine that writing my list is the last step of, but morning coffee will work just as well).

Devote up to 10 minutes to it. Think about what else is happening today. Check your calendar system for reminders and what’s coming up you want to be ready for. I suggest limiting your daily to-do list to 8 things maximum. If you’re easily overwhelmed, keep the list short and the tasks simple while you build up trust in your ability to follow your own instructions.

Write tasks in the “Verb - noun” pattern: ‘Email Jen’, ‘Wash hair’. Be specific. You can give amorphous tasks a solid outcome by including time: ‘Research images for half an hour’. Break complex tasks down into their sections to help motivation (for example ‘Ask gallery for show’ can be replaced with: ‘Write draft email’, ‘Find creative CV’, ‘Work out who to send email to’, ‘Send email to gallery.’)

Use reminders to help with timing and repeating tasks. If you have a creative deadline of 1st March and you know you have more time for creative things in the weekend, you can put a repeating reminder to work on it in Google Calendar for each Saturday in February.

Prioritise - either through putting a * on the three most important things, or by numbering them in the order you want to do them in. Think about timing - plan to do anything hard, new, unknown or creative early on, while you’re fresh.

Step 2: Work that list!

Put your to-do list somewhere visible, preferably that you walk past ten times a day. Tick or cross things off as you do them (adding flourishes and exclamation marks is definitely good form). It’s not necessarily about banging all those tasks out. If you’re like me and all your thoughts occur at once, you only need to make sure that you keep circling back to the list.

If you find yourself stuck on a task because it seems boring or not motivating, go back to the big picture reason that you chose to put it on your list in the first place. Take a moment to connect with your feelings and vision of that big picture, then mentally link that to the task.

Use a timer to break through resistance to working on a task. Let’s say you want to update your creative website but it’s been so long that the idea of looking at it hurts. Your list reads: Review website for half an hour. Sneak up to your desk and set a timer for 30 minutes. Now all you need to do is open your website and stay there till the timer goes off! This works like magic.

Step 3: Review

While you’re setting up this system, this step is extra important. Your guiding principle: If it works, keep it; if it doesn’t work, tweak it. Once you are well underway, the review step is mainly to check if you got stuck on any task, and help you unstick yourself again.

When you’ve done enough for the day, ask yourself: What did you tick off today? Celebrate, feel proud, be thankful. Anything you do is more than nothing (which, if you’re still reading this, you know is a real possibility).

Look at each of the remaining items in turn. Is it still important? Do you want to put it on tomorrow’s list, or set a reminder to put it on your list at a later date? Make sure that all items are either declared irrelevant, put back on your Mega-list or arranged to appear on a future to-do list. You don’t want to lose anything!

If you didn’t do something, try to not judge or bully yourself about it. Check in with your body and thoughts - are any difficult feelings or beliefs triggered by this task?

If so, break the task down into the smallest steps you can think of. A lot of steps will look relatively easy now. Mark the parts that are triggering or challenging. Do you need to get help for this step? Can you isolate the parts you need to be brave for? Can you do one tiny step a day, to give yourself time to cool off in between?

Go forth and organise

Your current organisational ability isn’t some kind of natural limit. You - yes you - can get better at it. The to-do list is great place to start.

As I’ve gotten better at organising my life, the best outcome is being able to trust that I’ll do what I choose to do. The scary part is realising that this means I have to take responsibility for what I want, on a daily basis.

May the power of the to-do list transform your creative life!